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Study Resources :: Text Commentaries :: Don Stewart :: Are All Spiritual Gifts Active Today?

Don Stewart :: What Is the Case for Saying That All of the Original Spiritual Gifts Still Exist?

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What Is the Case for Saying That All of the Original Spiritual Gifts Still Exist? (The Non-Cessationist Position)

Are All Spiritual Gifts Active Today? – Question 14

There are Bible-believers who think that there were a number of spiritual gifts that God gave to the church for a limited time only. Usually it is thought that these gifts were withdrawn with the death of the last of the apostles or sometime soon thereafter. Those who hold this view are known as cessationists.

There are also Bible-believers who believe that God has not withdrawn any of the gifts of the Spirit that He originally gave to the church. These people are known as non-cessationists.

Non-Cessationists Believe All the Objections Can Be Answered

The non-cessationists believe that they can answer all of the reasons that cessationists offer for the temporary nature of some of the gifts. In addition, they believe there is sufficient evidence to demonstrate that all of the original gifts should still be operating in the church.

Permanent Should Be Clearly Defined

However, when we speak of some gifts being “permanent” we must clearly define what we mean. The gifts are permanent for this particular age – this does not mean there will not come a day when they are no longer necessary. There will no longer be any need of spiritual gifts when Jesus Christ returns to the earth. Therefore, when we speak of the gifts being permanent, it is permanent for this present age.

The Case for the Continuance of All of the Gifts

Those who argue that all of the spiritual gifts, which God originally gave to the church still exist to this day, do so by giving the following arguments.

The Bible Says the Gifts Are Given until Christ Returns

When discussing the subject of spiritual gifts, Paul says they are given to the church until Jesus Christ returns. He told the Corinthians the following.

I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus, that in every way you were enriched in him in all speech and all knowledge–even as the testimony about Christ was confirmed among you–so that you are not lacking in any gift, as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 1:4-7 ESV)

Note that Paul said the Corinthians are not lacking in any spiritual gift while they wait for the Lord Jesus to return to the earth. While this does not necessarily mean that all of the gifts must operate until Christ returns, it certainly is the inference from what he said.

Whatever the case may be, the burden of proof is upon those who argue that certain gifts were only meant to be temporary.

Response by Cessationists

Cessationists respond by saying that the nature of certain gifts demonstrates they were only temporary. The fact that spiritual gifts were given to the church to be exercised until Christ returns says nothing about the duration of all of the gifts. It merely emphasizes that spiritual gifts are given for the work of the ministry. There is nothing illogical about arguing that when the purpose of a certain gift has been fulfilled, the gift may be withdrawn at that time.

It also must be remembered that all gifts are temporary – there will be no need for any of them when Christ returns.

All the Gifts Are Characteristic of This Present Age

On the Day of Pentecost the Holy Spirit was given to believers in a unique way. All who now believe in Jesus Christ are given the Holy Spirit and His power.

As we read the Book of Acts we find that the disciples of Jesus through the work of the Holy Spirit, experienced power to mightily preach the message of Jesus, do miracles, heal the sick, cast out demons, and experience dreams and visions. In addition, other believers also received these gifts and experienced this power. Thus, it is argued, this miracle-working ability among believers is a characteristic of this entire age.

Paul wrote about the age of the New Covenant and compared it to the previous age. He explained it this way to the Corinthians.

He is the one who has enabled us to represent his new covenant. This is a covenant, not of written laws, but of the Spirit. The old way ends in death; in the new way, the Holy Spirit gives life. That old system of law etched in stone led to death, yet it began with such glory that the people of Israel could not bear to look at Moses’ face. For his face shone with the glory of God, even though the brightness was already fading away. Shouldn’t we expect far greater glory when the Holy Spirit is giving life? If the old covenant, which brings condemnation, was glorious, how much more glorious is the new covenant, which makes us right with God! (2 Corinthians 3:6-9 NLT).

There is no reason to believe that the blessings of the New Covenant age, which includes all spiritual gifts, would be limited to this first generation of Christians. These signs were to be characteristic of the entire age until Christ returns. All believers receive spiritual gifts, and all believers should be able to experience the power of the new age, as did Jesus’ original disciples.

Response by Cessationists

What took place at Pentecost was a unique experience. Furthermore, the apostles were in a unique position of actually personally knowing the earthly Jesus. Therefore, it this sense, they certainly are unique.

Since they were the ones given the task of teaching the church the doctrine of Jesus Christ, special gifts were necessary. These gifts, however, would not be necessary for those who came after them because the Word of Christ was fully revealed when the New Testament was completed.

The Early Church Was a Miracle Working Church

We also find miracles in a number of churches in the apostolic age. They seem to be the rule rather than the exception. If the church began as a miracle-working enterprise, then why should we expect this to stop? This is true of the churches of Corinth and Galatia. To the Galatians Paul wrote.

Well then, does God supply you with the Spirit and work miracles among you by your doing the works of the law, or by your believing what you heard? (Galatians 3:5 NRSV).

Each of these churches in the region of Galatia experienced miracles.

James said that healing was to continue in the church. He wrote the following.

Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven (James 5:14,15 ESV).

All of this indicates that all of the gifts God originally gave the church were meant to continue until the Lord returned.

Response by Cessationists

Not every church was a miracle-working church. There are a number of churches that are mentioned in the New Testament with no reported miracle connected to them. Therefore we must be careful not to assume that miracles were normally occurring each time a new church was planted in the apostolic era. We do not have evidence to support that idea.

The Purpose of Spiritual Gifts Was to Give a Foretaste of the Coming Age

Another reason for the continuance of all the gifts can be found in their purpose. Along with equipping the church for the work of the ministry, spiritual gifts give believers an idea of what the coming age will be like.

When Jesus Christ returns there will be no more sickness or sorrow. Our knowledge about God, though not exhaustive, will be complete. Certain of the spiritual gifts, such as the gift of healing and the gift of the word of knowledge give us a taste of what that age will be like. When people experience God’s healing touch or are given some unique spiritual insight, they experience, to an imperfect degree, what the new age will be like. This is another reason as to why all the gifts must continue until Christ returns.

Response by Cessationists

This assumes what it should be proving. The Scripture never gives this as a reason that God gave believers the gifts of the Spirit. The Bible says the gifts were given to build up the body of Christ for the work of the ministry – it says nothing about giving believers some sort of insight into the age to come. As all will admit, any insight we may gain is only very limited. We still see through the glass darkly.

The Analogy of a Body Shows All the Gifts Should Continue

There is also the analogy that the Scripture gives as the church being the body of Christ. This seems to indicate that the gifts of the Spirit are permanent since the various parts of the body have permanent existence. While this analogy cannot be pushed too far it is consistent with the idea that all of the gifts that God originally gave to the church were meant to be permanent throughout this entire church age.

Response by Cessationists

We must be careful in using analogies to try to prove a particular doctrine. The Bible compares the church to a body – it does not teach that it is a literal body. Therefore, this body analogy proves nothing with respect to the permanence of the gifts.

The Bible Does Not Designate Any of the Gifts as Sign Gifts

It is important to note that the Scripture nowhere designates certain gifts as “sign gifts.” In every place where the spiritual gifts are listed we find no distinction between sign gifts and non-sign gifts. While the Bible speaks of the “signs of an apostle,” it does not mean that certain gifts were meant only as sign gifts. If there were two sets of gifts, sign gifts and non-sign gifts, then we would expect them to be clearly distinguished from one another. They are not.

Response by Cessationists

Scripture does speak of the signs of an apostle. In the context it seems to be speaking of the miraculous gifts that demonstrated the apostles had unique authority. It was only by these miraculous signs that people would know who had the authority of God and who did not. Therefore, the people were looking for miraculous signs from those who had authority in the church; the apostles and prophets.

The Bible Does Not Divide the Gifts between Temporary and Permanent

There is also the fact that the Bible nowhere distinguishes between the temporary gifts and the permanent ones. The gifts that are supposed to be temporary are found in the same lists as those that are assumed to be permanent. If the Bible makes no distinction between the two, then how are we to know?

Response by Cessationists

While the Bible nowhere specifically distinguishes between the temporal and the permanent this does not mean that we reject the idea. The Bible nowhere specifically uses the word Trinity – yet the Scripture clearly teaches the doctrine. A study of the purpose of the spiritual gifts in the overall plan of God will demonstrate that some gifts were meant to be used only temporarily.

Cessationists Cannot Agree as to Which Gifts Were Temporary and Which Were Permanent

There is a further problem. There is no unanimity of opinion among cessationists as to which gifts were the temporary ones and which were supposed to be permanent. If the distinction between permanent and temporary was so clear then why is there disagreement upon which gifts should be placed in which category?

For example, some cessationists argue that the gift of apostle is still active in the church while others do not. There are cessationists who believe the gift of prophecy still functions among believers while others disagree. The gifts of the word of wisdom and the word of knowledge are likewise found in both categories of permanent and temporary among cessationists. The same holds true with the gift of discernment, or distinguishing of spirits.

There are even some cessationists who believe the gift of healing still operates in the church – although they usually define it as the medical art. The point is this: if cessationists cannot agree among themselves as to which gifts were temporary and which were permanent, then, it may be asked, “How is anybody else supposed to know the answer to this question?”

Response by Cessationists

This is not entirely true. There is a great deal of unanimity of opinion that certain gifts were meant to be only temporary. These include the gift of apostle, prophet, miracles, healing, tongues, and interpretation of tongues. With respect to the word of knowledge, the word of wisdom, and the distinguishing between the spirits, the evidence is not as clear as to the meaning and the purpose of the gift

In sum, each of the major objections to the idea that the sign gifts have ceased have a reasoned response. The non-cessationists, those who think all of the gifts still exist in the church, believe that they have made their case.

Of course, these responses are all countered by the cessationists. They too believe that they have made their case for the withdrawal of certain gifts.

As can be readily seen, this is not an easy issue to decide. Indeed, there are reasonable arguments from both sides. This being the case, each believer will have to make up his or her own mind as to what they believe the Bible teaches on this subject.

Summary – Question 14
What Is the Case for Saying That All of the Original Spiritual Gifts Still Exist? (The Non-Cessationist Position)

Cessationists are those who believe that certain spiritual gifts were not meant to be permanent for the entire New Testament age. Non-cessationists disagree. Not only to they think all of the objections that cessationists bring are answerable, they also point out a number of things that support the continuation of all of the gifts until Jesus Christ returns. We will summarize their arguments as well as the response of the cessationists.

First, the Scripture specifically says the gifts will continue to be used until Christ returns – there is no qualification to this statement. On the Day of Pentecost the Holy Spirit was poured out upon the believers where they were able to perform certain miraculous deeds. These miraculous gifts were to characterize the present age.

Cessationists disagree. The fact that certain gifts were given at the outset of this age does not necessarily mean that they will continue until Christ returns. The continuance of the gifts has to be proven, not assumed.

Non-cessationists contend that many of the early congregations were miracle-working congregation. The fact that most of the congregations were given miracle-working power is another reason why the gifts were to continue.

Cessationists point out in response to this that not every congregation was given supernatural sign gifts. Indeed, we do not have any indication that the sign gifts functioned at a number of the churches. Thus, one cannot use the universality of supernatural gifts among all the churches to argue for their continuance.

Another point non-cessationists make is that the gifts were also given to give us an indication of what the coming age would be like. Thus, we presently experience some of the blessings of the new age through the exercise of the sign gifts.

In response, cessationists argue that this assumes what should be proved. Indeed, the stated purpose for spiritual gifts is the building up of the body of Christ to equip the believers for the work of the ministry. Nothing is ever said about these gifts giving us a foretaste of the “new age.”

Another argument from those who believe all the gifts still exist comes from the analogy of the body. The fact that the church is compared to a human body, and that the gifts of the spirit are likened to different parts of the body, indicates the permanent nature of all of the gifts. For the body to properly function each of the parts must exist and be operating correctly.

Cessationists respond by saying that we should not try to derive Bible-doctrine from analogies. Merely because the analogy of a body is used in describing the church does not mean that each gift must continue throughout the age for the body to properly function. The body could still properly function is certain of the gifts were withdrawn.

One of the strongest of the arguments which come from the non-cessationists is that there is no distinction made in Scripture between the sign gifts and non-sign gifts. If there is such a distinction, it is strange that the Bible does not make it.

Those who believe that certain gifts were to be withdrawn at some point in time, the cessationists, use Paul’s testimony to support this idea. Paul claimed that he had the signs of an apostle. This means that the apostles alone were given certain signs to establish their authority. Since there are no longer apostles there are no longer signs of the apostle or supernatural sign gifts. Thus, these sign gifts were distinguished from the other gifts.

Non-cessationists also point out that there is not any distinction made between permanent gifts and non-permanent gifts. Again, why is there no distinction made if there were two sets of gifts?

The cessationists respond by saying this fact can be discovered when the entirety of Scripture is studied. Like the doctrine of the Trinity, it is there in Scripture. However, it becomes clear the more the Bible is studied.

There is also the problem that cessationists cannot agree among themselves as to which gifts are permanent and which are temporary. This seems to destroy any idea that certain gifts can be clearly seen as temporary.

Cessationists say that there is a great deal of unanimity among them about which gifts were temporary as well as which gifts were permanent. They do not believe that a small difference among themselves weakens their overall argument.

In sum, we find reasoned arguments from each side. First, there seems to be a solid case for the continuance of all of the spiritual gifts that were originally given. In addition, cessationists believe that each of these objections to the continuance of the gifts can be answered. On the other hand, those who believe that God withdrew certain gifts at the end of the apostolic era also have reasoned arguments on their sides. Their arguments also have merit.

What must be emphasized is that there are good Bible-believing people on each side of this issue. Thus, no matter what a person eventually concludes about this question, there will always be godly, spiritually mature people who disagree. This must always be kept in mind.

What Are the Arguments from Experience for the Permanence of the Sign Gifts? ← Prior Section
When Paul Said, "God's Gifts Were Irrevocable," Was He Speaking about Spiritual Gifts? Next Section →
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